Friday, April 5, 2013

Between Two Thorns - Emma Newman

The subject of a Big Idea post over on Whatever. Newman doesn't actually describe the book at all, but this paragraph caught my attention:
"At first it disguised itself as a short story about a shopkeeper and a woman returning one of his products; a faerie trapped in a bell jar. The woman thinks it’s a frivolous gadget sent by her husband abroad, with no idea that she’s in possession of a real faerie which could destroy her life. The shopkeeper, feeling merciful, sends her away with a fruit cake recipe after casting a memory loss charm on her."
I wanted to know more about a world where you could accidentally wind up with a faerie in a bell jar, and I definitely wanted to know why it could have destroyed her life. From the very first page I couldn't put this book down. The characters are awesome, the setting is really really cool - the world of Faery has been split from the Mundane world, and in between the two lies the Nether where only those mortals sponsored by the Fae may live, and time does not pass (or at least, doesn't affect those living in the Nether). The Victorian society of the Nether juxtaposed with modern society in the Mundane world was a lot of fun. The little glimpses we get of Exillium, the Faery realm, are very intriguing and more than a little scary. The story itself is great - embedded in the setting, and well wrapped-up within a single novel.

I can't wait to read more. I'm already reading the short stories set in the Split Worlds, and I'm anxiously awaiting the next book!

Roman Fever - Edith Wharton

Emily, over on Evening All Afternoon (who hasn't posted in ages...and whose posts I miss terribly) wrote about Roman Fever, and I was especially intrigued by her mention of Wharton's treatment of the cultural baggage surrounding marriage. I'm not generally disappointed by the books recommended over there, even though they're way outside my usual comfort zone, and this one did not disappoint.

The setting for these stories is early 20th century upper class American society - although they are not necessarily set in the United States, but often concern Americans living abroad. This was particularly fascinating to me as I've been reading quite a lot of Georgette Heyer's regency romances lately, and the society of Roman Fever is a lot closer to that of Regency England than to modern day. Women do have more freedom, and there is a lot more travel, but society imposes its restrictions far more than nowadays.

I really enjoyed all the stories, although the title story was definitely my favorite. I can't say much about it without ruining it though. I found all the stories fairly quick and easy to read. Many of them were downright hilarious - especially Xingu which is about a book club and how people deal with trying to avoid looking stupid. Several of them were fairly sad, but on the whole they left me feeling hopeful.

This is definitely going on my list of books to re-read.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rapture of the Nerds - Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross

As a fan of both Stross & Doctorow, I figured this book would definitely be worth reading. I wasn't wrong, but instead of combining my favorite aspects of both writers, it wound up combining my least favorite elements of both their styles...which still made for a very enjoyable book.

Humanity has figured out how to upload itself to the cloud, but of course not everyone is ready for that just yet. Huw Jones hasn't forgiven his parents for uploading when he was a teenager, and is attempting to live as technology free a life as possible. Unfortunately for Huw the universe has other ideas and he winds up far more involved than he ever wanted to be. In the process we get to see a little of what has happened to people still living on the planet, which isn't too pretty. The US seems especially bad with its combination of religious cults and swarm of ants which eat everything they can get their mandibles on.

Huw is not especially loveable, and I found him really irritating for the first half of the story. He's being dragged kicking and screaming away from his nice, electronic-free life as a potter, and in the process appears to be complicating things for everyone. Finally things start to make a lot more sense as we find out why horrible things are happening to Huw in particular, and at that point I started to really enjoy the book. Possibly I will like it a whole lot more on a second read.

Unsurprisingly in a Doctorow/Stross collaboration this book explores the implications of life as an uploaded entity. I had never thought about what happens when everyone lives as a simulation in the computer and then you create new simulation - the new sim is effectively a person, they are indistinguishable from all the other folks who consider themselves people, so you can't just go killing them off by shutting them down once you're done, that hardly seems fair. Then what if you spawn other versions of yourself? Your clones become separate entities almost immediately, you wouldn't want to suddenly find yourself deleted as not being quite as up to date as some other version. Also, what about overclocking? If you are running on a really fast computer, you effectively experience time passing more quickly than someone running on a slower processor. How do you allocate resources? Emotional reactions are another thing - when you can artificially modulate your emotions, is this any less valid than someone who has learned to modulate their emotions by meditating?

On the whole, I'd have to say I enjoyed this. The story was mostly fun, the characters got to be more enjoyable as things progressed. Huw is actually a sympathetic character once you finally wrap your head around why he is acting the way he is. Most readers would probably empathize more with his parents than with him, since I assume anyone reading this story would be more likely to upload themselves to the cloud than now, and yet his overreaction to being abandoned by his parents is totally understandable.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dazzle of Day - Molly Gloss

Jo Walton reread The Dazzle of Day over on Tor.com. She titled the post "Quakers in Space" which is a really good one line description. It is set on a generational starship, but the folks on the ship aren't the ones who built it - they're one of the few groups who actually had the guts to abandon Earth. So while they have all sorts of high tech gear, they're a very low tech society. Obviously there are folks who have to maintain the ship, and learn how to repair the sails as they arrive at their destination so that the ship can slow down properly, but mostly they are farmers and artisans. And the society is very egalitarian with all decisions being made at Meetings (which obviously makes things difficult because you have to have a large group of people coming to an agreement about things - difficult things - deciding to change the world by actually landing on the planet their ancestors set out for instead of staying in their nice safe (but gradually decaying) ship). So it is entirely different in flavour from any other generational starship story I've ever read. Which is awesome. And yet...like Jo says in her post, her 11-year old self would have hated this book, and maybe I'm not really old enough to enjoy it yet. It was almost too real for me. There was a lot of death and disability - in fact a very realistic amount of death and disability - but it was of the sort that in your standard sci-fi story wouldn't have happened - people would have been saved at the very last minute. Instead, the dramatic rescue attempts don't necessarily succeed, or don't succeed fully, and we get to explore the effect of that on the survivors - who are very human. Which is interesting, and it was a very compelling read, but a bit depressing on the whole - and yet not, because people do survive and go on to create lives, happy lives, for themselves and their descendants on this new planet.

The one thing I really enjoyed was the family and social structure. Marriage is very much a thing, but people don't get married and move into their own houses, you continue living with family - but exactly which family (or friends) you live with depends a lot more on personalities than on precedent. People regularly move around if they stop getting along with the folks they are living with and have a better option. Also, children when they reach age 12 are expected to move elsewhere for their 'green years' in order to experience different family environments. Generally moving in with aunts & uncles or other relatives. Each individual dwelling is part of a larger community, so that sleeping, cooking and eating would be done with your family group, but communal spaces are available for working and bathing. Within a very constrained society this seems (to me) to allow a large degree of personal freedom. If you aren't happy, you can leave - you aren't going very far, but far enough.

So I think I really enjoyed it, but I think I might like it better in 20 years. Definitely worth reading especially as it is quite short.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Servant of a Dark God - John Brown

This was one of the first Big Idea posts that sounded cool to me, I think it was mostly the way Brown told the story of being chased by a bull, I figured that if I'd enjoyed the brief piece so much, I would probably enjoy the longer story, also the idea of people being farmed like cows intrigued me. In theory we're smarter than cows, so convincing us that being farmed was ok should be a bit trickier.

The story was easy to fall into, Talen is the protagonist and the first chapter where he is trying to locate his missing pants was fabulous and did a lot to give me an idea of his character and how his family worked. The next few chapters where it became clear to the reader that all was not quite right with the world were a lot of fun. Talen is still pretty young and still believing that the people in charge are good and right and when they say someone is bad and dangerous that person should be turned in to the authorities, but it is clear that the rest of his family isn't nearly as naive and that shortly Talen will figure things out and wind up on the right side. It takes rather a long time for Talen to realize that the authorities are not on his side and that breaking the rules is the right thing to do. On the one hand that is awesome - it really makes the situation believable, that you have this civilization built on a pile of lies, the fact that it takes Talen a long time to overcome the indoctrination is very realistic. On the other hand...you spend more than half the book in a bit of a panic that Talen is going to do something absolutely disastrous, which makes it very difficult to just relax and enjoy the story, and I found it really broke the immersion. Once things did get going it was totally fabulous, and I really liked the way things came together in the end. I think that realizing this was the first book in a trilogy before I started reading it (which was clear from the Big Idea post, but not from the cover of the book) would have helped a bit, although I really did get a sense of closure at the end of the story - but things aren't done yet, they're only just getting going with saving the world! And this world really does need saving.

Definitely looking forward to reading the next two books, probably going to recommend this to a bunch of other people.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance - Lois McMaster Bujold

I practically inhaled Bujold's Vorkosigan saga when I first found out about it a couple years ago, so I was really excited when I found out she was writing a new book, especially when I discovered that it was going to star Ivan Vorpatril. Miles Vorkosigan had really gotten too powerful, and Cryoburn was a bit of a disappointment. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance was exactly what I was hoping for and then some.

To begin with, I love that this story stars Ivan actually being Ivan. I was really worried (especially given the title) that Ivan was going to have to step up and into Miles' shoes, presumably in order to rescue somebody. But instead, it is Ivan, thrust entirely unwilling into a situation he doesn't want to be in, bright enough to see all the implications, but not wanting to get involved unless he can possibly avoid it. Unless of course there's a pretty girl and a chance of getting laid.

The bit which made me incredibly happy, is the love story. I've been reading a lot of Georgette Heyer lately, and my favorite type of love story is the one where the couple gets married first and falls in love later. Ivan is the perfect candidate for this sort of story since he's been avoiding marriage so assiduously, but when he finds himself accidentally (and temporarily) married to Tej, he is totally happy - which shouldn't surprise anyone who has ever been happily married. A happy marriage is a very comfortable place, and Ivan likes being comfortable.

Then there's the bit of the story where Ivan has to step up and be the hero, because we all know that Ivan can and will be the hero when he is in a corner and has no choice in the matter. Simon is involved too, and he's mostly recovered from the loss of the memory chip, so getting to see his relationship with Lady Alys and with Ivan is a lot of fun. Also the Jewels...they're pretty cool. In fact Tej's whole family is pretty fascinating.

I laughed out loud at the end of the book when I read through the timeline plot summaries for each novel and hit the one sentence description for this one: "ImpSec. Headquarters suffers a problem with moles." It perfectly describes the part of the story which is going to impact the people of Barrayar, and yet manages to be entirely misleading. Awesome.

Jo Walton has a post up on Tor.com about this which was fun to read, but I'm glad I held off until after I had read the book. It was so much fun going into this story not having any idea what might happen. I'm definitely hoping for another Ivan book though.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dodger - Terry Pratchett

I was disappointed because I was expecting Discworld, and this isn't Discworld, it is the fictional story of Charles Dickens' inspiration for Oliver Twist, mainly for the character of the Artful Dodger. Also, it is a YA novel, so it's a bit shorter than you might expect, except that it is printed in a slightly larger font, on slightly thicker paper, so the book is about the same size as Snuff.

Once I readjusted my expectations, I quite enjoyed this. Dodger is a great character, and I did appreciate this being set in the real world rather than in Ankh-Morpork. The fantasy setting of the Discworld lets Pratchett point out a lot of things that are wrong with our society, but Dodger doesn't need the fantasy setting, because it has a historical setting, and I think the book is more powerful for having that historical setting. Especially in a novel targeted at young adults, it is great to have a book which references some of the cultural history - the story of Sweeney Todd, the origins of the London Peelers, the different layers of society, and some pretty significant research into the state of London's poor.

Overall a great book, and now I want to go read Oliver Twist with a fresh perspective.